Sunday, 26 April 2009

Learning History from Extraordinary Books

For a few days, I have been reading two books about history. First is, Dee Brown's book, 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'. It is a very good book. Even though the book is about history, it is not boring at all. Some reviews stated that the book was based a lot on the Native Americans' memory and comments, but since I came from a country who suffered colonialisation, I can understand the story. Some statements might have been exaggerated (as the author stated), but the idea of two completely different cultures that clashed in the worst possible way, when their contradicting needs collided, made the same sense with Indonesian history.

From reading this book, I begin to understand that Indonesia did not suffer the worst of the world's conquest story, in a way. The culture clash between Indonesian and Portuguese, English and Dutch was not as extreme as the clash that happened between the Native Americans with the Spanish and English

Before the Europeans came to Indonesia, Indonesians were already living as kingdoms (there were a lot of small kingdoms around archipelago), with the structure of a country, only in small areas. There were tribal groups, but these tribes were considerably untouched by the Europeanse anyway, since they live far from the shores. Some of these tribes are still living very traditionally to this day.

More than that, Indonesians at that time were already aware of outsiders as we were in the end of 'Silk Road' trading route which went from Middle East to India, to China and to the archipelago (several different kingdoms at that time, around Sulawesi, Java and Sumatra).

The arrival of Europeans who at first intended to buy spices took Indonesians off guard. Trading was not a new thing for them, plus the distinguished features of the Europeans (compared to Indians and Middle Eastern traders who were reasonably physically similar) awed the local people. Once the trade started to turn into something else completely different (like land transferring, etc.), then it was already too late for Indonesians to defend themselves.

Yes, we were colonialised, but the previous encounters with outsiders gave Indonesians a different way of fighting (to combine with the physical fight). In the old days, great kingdoms of Sriwijaya (Sumatra) and Majapahit (Java), had their golden times of being the centre of Hindu and Budha learning of the world after their elders came back from India to learn from the sources of the religion. Many students from other parts of the world had come to learn in the two kingdoms. So, having visitors was not a new thing for the local peole.

Some other people had also gone to India and Middle East, to learn about Islam. So, going overseas to study was not a new thing either for the people of the archipelago.

This is the way that was taken by some of financially-able Indonesians during the Dutch ruling too. They went to Holland to study (not kidnapped), then they brought back their knowledge and motivation to strengthen their fight towards independence.

'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' was written and published about 200 years after the war. Now, a lot of the native tribes have vanished forever without any descendant. The culture clash was too extreme to overcome when it was happening.. It was a very sad reality..

The second book I have been reading is Langit Kresna Hariadi's book, 'Gajah Mada' (the first of 4-series novel). This book is a fiction based on true events and timeline of Majapahit Kingdom, where Gajah Mada was an advisor (position of Prime Minister and War Advisor of the Kingdom). He was famous for his pledge to bring the archipelago together under one nation. He started off his career as a soldier but because of his personality, skills and wisdom, he became a well-respected person in the entire Indonesian history, even better known than some kings.

The series told the stories of the culture, politics and strategies in Majapahit Kingdom, including the rebellions and treacheries occurred. Even though the additional characters are fictional, the timeline of occurring events, characters of history and overall plots were based on known real history. Additional details were added to fill in the holes, based on best estimates putting local cultures and viewpoints into considerations. These made the whole story told was as close as possible to the real history.

Indonesia has only been a free country for 60 years (after the declaration of independence from colonialisation).. so, it might take more than a century for something similar to this book to surface from people's memories and comments. A lot of parts of the culture and traditions would probably have vanished by that time too (although the population is nowhere near extinction).

Indonesians are taught Indonesian History as a compulsory subject at school, from Primary to Senior High School. However, they way history is introduced to students is not in the way which can motivate young generations to keep fighting for growth and development.

Moreover, the way World History is taught to students is as if the world is a completely separate place to where we are (that's probably how most history books are written).

In general, I believe that if history teachers (and students) read these two books (and other books written in similar manner), they will be able to give students a better chance to relate to Indonesian and world's history, to learn better from the history.

In the case of education in Indonesia, I believe that this approach will have a good chance to bring back the greatness of the old kingdoms, learn from the mistakes that people did and create a better future for Indonesia.